Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle by Simon Ford (Book Review)

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The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle by Simon Ford
(Black Dog Publishing, London 1999, £19.95)

By focusing on a performance art troop that metamorphosed into a rock group, Simon Ford has produced a book that illuminates the political economy of UK cultural production during the 1970’s. This was a time when there was cheap housing plus plentiful arts grants and welfare benefits. Perfect conditions in which cultural experimentation could flourish as well as a lot of art wank that was pushed by those responsible as cutting edge work. Far more than the other members of COUM and TG, motor mouthed front man Genesis P.Orridge exemplifies the commendable excesses of this era. WHile P.Orridge’s collaborators had day jobs and identifiable talents, Genesis lived out his fantasies of bohemian dissolution as a life-style option and non-stop fashion statement. This entailed the proto-slacker presenting himself as a starving artist in order to get grants, as well as making judicious use of that alternative arts funding scheme known as the dole.

The story of COUM and TG is well known, What Ford has done is flesh it out using material from contemporary newspapers and his own interviews with those involved. P.Orridge in particular has a flair for self-dramatisation and Ford doesn’t waste time attempting to disentagle fact from fiction. Instead when stories conflict alternative versions of events are disinterestedly offered with the reader left free to choose the mythologisation they prefer. Having decided upon his modus operandi, Ford’s rigor in sticking to it is admirable even if his method occasionally undermines the hyper-implosive effects he might have achieved with a more pragmatic approach. For example, P.Orridge appear to have inflated the sales figures for various records but Ford resists the amusements to be had from checking them against other sources and instead restricts himself to placing the euphemism “accurate estimate” in quote marks. Likewise by doing more to draw out the unreliablility of .Orridge’s recollections, Ford might have portrayed this maverick cultural broker as a paradigmatic example of the decentred post-modern subject.

While Ford knows his art history, he’s set out to produce a rock biography and intransigently refuses to allow cultural theory to intrude on his narrative. P.Orridge specialised in appropriating ideas and Ford provides very succinct contextualisation for this material. That said, there is enough background data to demonstrate that COUM were both less amusing and less inventive than their perfomance art peers such as Ddart or the Kipper Kids. Likewise TG’s music was competent but extremely derivative. However, while COUM recycled motifs within the art world, TG watered down and repackaged cutting edge experimentation for the rock market. Documenting how TG did this necessitates the reproduction of promotional graphics and Wreckers of Civilisation is generously illustrated. Hardcore TG fans will probably be disappointed by the restraint exercised over the use of pictures of Cosey Fanni Tutti with her “tits out”. Nevertheless, Ford does cover Tutti’s “subliminal performance art” that entailed working as a pornographic model and stripper. This was an intriguing project and Ford is one of the first commentators to come anywhere close to doing it justice.

Wreckers of Civilisation is a well designed and thoroughly researched document. Fans of P.Orridge will consume the book as “information” rather than “entertainment”. However, there are many ways in which this text can be read and I have already encountered individuals gleefully consuming it as an obituary of industrial culture in general and Genesis P. in particular. Rather than openly criticising his subject, Ford self-consciously mimics it and this might well be a way of subverting conformist “extremism” through irony. A subtle strategy indeed. Is this satire instrumentalised as depletion but simultaneously overflowing itself? Read Wreckers of Civilisation and work it out for yourself.

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